Following Northwestern’s 21-7 win over Rutgers — its first victory over a Big Ten or Power Five conference opponent this season — and ahead of its weekend trip, Pat Fitzgerald spoke to the media Monday during his weekly press availability. He was joined by Bryce Gallagher and Stephon Robinson Jr., each of whom performed well against the Scarlet Knights.
Opening Statement: “Good morning, everybody. Appreciate you covering us and appreciate you being with us today... I’ll go back and start with a recap and players of the game from last week. Stephon Robinson was our offensive player of the week, Bryce Gallagher on defense and Ray Niro on special teams. All three guys made plays, respectfully, in those areas. I though we played pretty complimentary football. Big playmaker [on offense] was Malik Washington and big playmaker on defense was Adetomiwa Adebawore. Practice players were Carmine Bastone, [Jordan] Butler and Theran Johnson. I really appreciate those three guys, the effort level that they’re giving. It was great to see my teammates and Coach Barnett and his staff, it was a great homecoming celebration. Really want to thank our support staff, Jacob Schmidt, Darby Dunnigan and Demetrius Fields — and a host of others — for the job that they did making that reunion and other events first class. It was great to get a win and get that accomplished while all those great guys and great coaches were here.
Wanna say big shoutout to the [Chicago] Sky with their WNBA championship. It’s always great to see championship trophies here in Chicago. Want to congratulate them on their amazing run and amazing championship performance.
First time going to Ann Arbor since ‘15. Again, one of the cathedrals of college football, so it’ll be a tough environment for us to play in. Honored to have an opportunity to compete for the Jewett Trophy and the legacy of George Jewett. It’s my understanding that there will be a number of his family members that will be there, so to honor his legacy and to really have a trophy that stands for what’s great in college football — the first African-American player both and Michigan and here at Northwestern — I know our guys are excited to honor his legacy and compete for a trophy and all that it means. The first of obviously a great tradition moving forward, and we’re honored as a university to be a part of something this special. We’ll talk about that again as a squad tomorrow, we talked about it in training camp and actually when it first got presented to us. So it’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of it, and look forward to honoring Mr. Jewett’s legacy the right way.”
On Ryan Hilinski’s development in his system: “I think it’s just familiarity now with playing and games. He didn't play a lot last year, if any, and then starting off the year from a transfer standpoint, really only had two weeks of spring ball. So I just think he’s growing every day and every rep, and I thought he played pretty clean. He got away with a couple throws that we won't be able to get away with against the Wolverines’ defense, but for the most part, made really good decisions with the ball. I think the things that are important for quarterback play, right, putting the ball in your playmakers’ hands, taking what the defense gives you, taking care of the football and then, ultimately, getting us down and scoring, especially when we’re in the scoring zone. Scoring touchdowns and winning football games, and to be able to get that done was, I think, a great boost of confidence for him. But we’re gonna have our hands full with this defense. I mean, this group is relentless, so it’s gonna be a huge challenge.”
On how he’s seen Chris Bergin grow as a player and leader: “First of all, he just came in with a chip on his shoulder and a ton to prove, not being recruited and starting in our program as a walk-on. He’s absolutely one of the most relentless guys I’ve been around. His film prep, the way he takes care of his body, what he does from a preventative standpoint, the way that he practices every day... I mean this guy is the Energizer Bunny, man, he comes in every day ready to work and grind and get after it. I think it shows, from that standpoint. Leadership wise, I think, like anybody, leadership’s coupled with performance and he’s performed so well throughout his entire, not only at linebacker, but also in special teams. I think that gives guys great confidence in him as a teammate, and they trust in what he says because he’s gone out there and he’s earned it. So he’s meant the world to our program, I think he means a ton to our linebacking corps, with two “younger” experienced guys now on the field with him. I thought he made some big plays on Saturday.”
On what it would mean to the program to beat Michigan for the first time since 2008: “I’m more focused on us trying to get a first down, and get a stop, and execute the kick game. The big picture stuff, I think, is great for you all to talk about, but we just need to go out and play consistent football to give ourselves an opportunity to compete. For the most part on Saturday, we probably played our best collective game in all three phases, and we gotta build upon that spark. But we’ve got great respect for Michigan, their talent, their coaching. It’ll be a great environment up there on FOX, kicking off at noon local. So we just gotta put a great week of practice together and get our minds right, and then play cleaner than we have on the road this year. We have not played very well on the road, and this is by far, probably, the best team we’ve played all year. To this point, it’s not even close, in my opinion, watching everybody on tape... that I’ve seen, that we’ve prepared for. So this is gonna be a huge challenge.”
On how he feels the team has grown defensively since Michigan State: “Fundamentally, number one, I think we were much better here last week. In a couple games, we’ve been poor and it’s hurt us, and at other times we’ve been every bit as good as we’ve ever been. So just trying to get guys to execute fundamentally in a consistent manner. And then fitting gaps and tackling would be number two. There’s some times where I looked at some plays and just wondered to myself what in the wild world of sports are we doing? And then, [number] three, just getting better effort and more population to the football. It’s gonna be really challenging against Michigan. They do a lot of formation variations, they really make you think and have to operate and execute and communicate pre-snap. And then, obviously, the group up front that they have, including their tight ends and the two-headed monster they have in the backfield, which is as dynamic of a running group as anybody you’ll see. And then when you load the box, their skill on the outside can score. So it’s gonna be a huge challenge for our defense, there’s no doubt, but it’s also a huge opportunity.”
On what makes Michigan Stadium a difficult place to play: “I think since they put the luxury suites on the top, it’s gotten louder. My experience is up there, that’s the way it is. Their fans are so well-educated. I mean. the Big House is what it is for a reason. So just focus each play at a time and make it where you’re executing. When you’re not executing, you allow the fans to have a lot of fun because you’re getting your butt whipped. So I hope that we can execute a lot cleaner than we did when we were in Lincoln, especially early. We can’t allow ourselves to get in that kind of hole.”
On whether the 4-3 dominant defensive scheme used against Rutgers will be the norm going forward: “You want me to answer that? I’m not gonna tell you anything schematically about what we’re gonna do. You get to wait and write an article on Saturday and nitpick how many guys were in for how many snaps. But we’re gonna do what we think we gotta do to stop people, do the best job we can. Sometimes, we don’t do a very good job. You know how I feel, you guys have been covering us for a while, I’ll be there to admit when we don’t do it well. We’re trying to get our best 11 on the field to match what we need to do and how we need to do it every single play in all three phases. That’s what the bye week did for us. Solidified that.”
On how good linebacker performance impacts the defense: “As a former linebacker that made a lot of plays on block, the entire credit goes to our D-Line. I thought our D-Line played their best game of the year on Saturday against Rutgers. We were unblocked a lot, and, in contrast to some of our earlier games, we actually tackled better at linebacker. That’s where I think we played better on Saturday at linebacker, it was our tackling, for the most part. But I thought our D-Line was much better, fundamentally first and then gap control second, and the way they executed the calls. So that needs to continue to go. I’m proud of those guys because they really played poorly against Nebraska, so the way they responded was great, and they’re gonna have a huge challenge this week against, you could argue, the most physical offensive line and tight ends in the country.”
On his experience coaching against Jim Harbaugh and what this year’s Michigan team brings to the table compared to past years: “I’ve got great respect for Jim and his family. I’ve been close with John [Harbaugh] for a number of years, and I’ve known Jim for a number of years also. Got great respect for the programs that he's run and the success that he’s had. They just put a lot of pressure on you, schematically, but I think what they pride themselves in more than anything is how physical they’re playing in all three phases. It just jumps off the tape when you watch it. So the 2021 team, that’s what you see, and then you do your preparation and reading about the DNA, and it just seems like they’re having a lot of fun. It seems like they’re playing for each other and playing with great connectivity, and it just shows when you pop the tape on. The quarterback play has been outstanding, the big play home runs have been impressive, they grind you out. And then you pop on their defensive tape and their front seven is violent. I mean, they’re really violent, they’re really, really physical across each position. And then the back end is as fast and as physical as we’ve seen. So complete team, there’s no doubt about that, that’s why they’re ranked in the top ten. We’re gonna have our hands full, but we’ll hopefully put together a great week of prep and go play our best game of the year and give ourselves a chance to compete up there in Ann Arbor.”
Stephon Robinson Jr.
On how he built his chemistry with Ryan Hilinski: “When I first committed here and he first committed here, we talked a lot. He’s from California, so we’ve got that type of background history to us. Every time we’re here after we get done doing a set or anything like that, we all just talk through things we see, even if the ball doesn’t come to me, just talking about what he might do or what I might do on a specific route. So just continuing to do that every day.”
On what it’s like to be a part of this WR group: “Before the season, like as a receiver group, we knew what we could bring to the table. Just a matter of time, just have to have an opportunity, so Saturday was not a surprise to us. It finally happened, so we’re really excited and we want to build on that and just continue to make plays like that each and every game and be a factor in every game, not just being a one-time thing.
On whether explosive plays were a point of emphasis in the preseason: “We knew we had a dynamic corps of receivers, so, just like I said before, it was a matter of time before it actually occurred. We expect to make plays like that each and every game, so whenever we get the opportunity, we’re gonna make the most of it.”
On his feelings about the NU fanbase’s reception of him: “I'll see stuff on social media that my mom sends me, so, you know, it’s good knowing I have the support of the fans at Northwestern. Going out there and just playing for them and just playing for the community, it's a good feeling.”
On how his experience at Kansas has contributed to his growth: “I felt like, at Kansas, I went up against a lot of competition. I played against some first-round draft picks. So going up against them and just having the ability to see different stuff ahead of time, before it even happens now, just having that experience and being able to make plays happen and seeing them right on the spot instead of just being hit by them. Being the older guy and making sure I'm making the plays I’m supposed to make.”
On how he addresses opponents “game-planning to stop” him: “With every game, you gain more and more experience and get more comfortable out there. So Saturday was definitely a great game for the whole defense. We were flying around, making plays, we were having fun. Just getting that experience and getting comfortable out there has been huge throughout the last six weeks.”
On what players have helped his development: “So obviously, the last three years, being under Blake [Gallagher], Paddy [Fisher] and Chris’ [Bergin] wings, I was just trying to be a sponge, trying to soak up everything, from their whole week preparation schedule to everything to watching them on Saturdays and just trying to take in as much as I can. And Chris this year, starting in spring ball last spring, has been a huge mentor for me. He’s like a brother to me, he’s like an older brother here for me now that Blake’s not here. And he's been super helpful with just making sure that I’m staying and holding me accountable and making sure that I can be the player that I can be.”
On what he’s seen from Adetomiwa Adebawore this season: “Adetomiwa, he’s a beast, he’s an athletic freak, he’s explosive, and it’s nice to be playing behind a guy like that who can be so disruptive in the backfield. He’s had a phenomenal year so far, and that’s not just on Saturdays. You see that every single day in practice. He’s an absolute freak of nature, and it’s definitely nice to be playing behind him, he's a freak.”
On who on the defense he likes watching on tape: “Everyone, to be completely honest. Coach O’Neil always talks about just sitting back and watching the defense as a whole, and when we’re flying around and you just don’t focus on one particular player and you watch all 11 guys that are on the field and they’re flying to the ball and making plays, I mean, that’s awesome to see. So I would say everyone.”
On how he views the LB corps’ performance thus far this season: “Definitely experience, just gaining experience throughout the weeks and getting more comfortable out there has been huge. Just growing each week and making sure you’re not making the same mistakes that you made last week the week after, and just making sure you’re always having a growth mindset and never making the same mistake twice and just constant growth has been huge for us this year.”